Of all life’s many curiosities among the most inexplicable is the way in which some people’s entire careers are shaped by their surnames. Why is it that men called Pullitt are drawn to dentistry, while others named Smellie climb the greasy pole to the highest reaches of the environmental cleansing industry?
The self-same mysterious force of appellation singled out from birth the present chairman of the BBC. When Mr and Mrs Bland first gazed fondly upon their newborn son, Christopher, little did they know that one day destiny would mark him out to fulfil in deed what patronymy had achieved in word. For the overriding, if not sole, quality sought in a chairman of the BBC is blandness. His task – for the post has yet to entrusted to a woman – is to recite the solemn mantra handed down from one chairman to the next, which asserts the everlasting and inviolate duty of the BBC to adhere to the highest standards of public service broadcasting, to maintain excellence in all respects, to be the envy of the world, to be, in short, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
Sir Christopher – little can Mr and Mrs Bland have suspected when first they set eyes upon that bonny, mewling infant son that one day the Sword of State would gently settle upon his shoulder and he would rise a knight commander – fulfilled his ceremonial role last week with the launch of the Corporation’s Mission Statement.
No matter that the mission itself is entirely ritual – we do these things so well in this country – and no one will be setting off in any direction to any purpose, Sir Christopher played his part to a pleasing perfection. This was blandness incarnate.
The platitudes rolled sonorous and effortless from a tongue which in lesser men would have been lodged in a cheek. “I want public service broadcasting to survive, flourish, to offer a real alternative at every level, to provide services that the market alone doesn’t offer, to act as a benchmark for quality and innovation…a unique responsibility to reflect the best of this country…new responses…increased sensitivity…we have to stay true to the vision and public service purposes which which have shaped and led the BBC since 1922.”
It was a magnificent, faultless performance. And, liturgy recited, the celebrant departed to his throne-room high above Broadcasting House, leaving the corporation’s functionaries to resume the daily task of churning out rubbish for the masses.
In an all-too-brief Golden Age the BBC was unashamedly middle class. Unashamedly partly because it was staffed by people drawn from the middle class who saw nothing to be ashamed of and partly because the innate superiority of the working class had yet to be appreciated. When bourgeois standards of morality and behaviour prevailed, the BBC made programmes of a consistently high quality. Arguably, the very fact of such restraints on the programme makers who kicked and bridled against them was a spur to creativity; for without constraint or discipline, when anything goes, the only standard that survives is audience ratings.
For years, people of taste, sensibility and intelligence have lamented the BBC’s pursuit of a mass audience and its descent into a ratings war. But in truth it is a trend as inevitable as it is unstoppable. Like it or not – and I for one don’t – we live under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Popular culture is sovereign, with all that it entails in language, taste, humour, imagination, attention span, and comprehension. One by one the BBC abandons the things it was good at. Out goes serious drama; out go sitcoms that rely on wit rather than bodily functions; out goes the best of sports reporting; out goes intelligent children’s broadcasting; out, in short, goes anything that Middle England might want to watch after the watershed, as well as most of what it might want to watch before it. In comes news and current affairs tailored to meet the narrow horizons dicated by focus groups; in comes the awful, slavish cult of the celebrity and the personality; in come Oprah-fied slots, half confessional box half a sickly parade of victimhood; in come trashy American films, gorblimey soap operas, low life dramas, comedy programmes peopled by foul-mouthed adolescents of all ages, and, of course, sex, sex and sex.
The BBC is particularly fond of what it calls strong language (for the corporation to describe it as foul language would be judgmental, and that really is obscene), so much so that it proclaims the fact nightly. One evening last week, a chirpy female voice proclaimed that, in the programme we were about to switch off, “things get heated in the language department”. Routine swearing, once regarded as evidence of inarticulateness, inadequacy, coarseness, and a failed education, is today seen by the nation’s leading public service corporation as an essential and indispensable component in its mission to stay true to the vision and purposes which have shaped and led it since 1922.
If Sir Christopher truly wishes to reach out and touch the people with his high principles and lofty ambitions for the BBC, he would do well, when next he declares his mission, to get a little heated in the language department. Then we’ll know for certain that he effing means what he effing says.